We were too young when we met for me to remember how. I was skinny and awkward and talked about animals too much. He was the theatre star in star-crossed love with a girl that was about to move to Mexico. She was funny and smart and warm and lots of other things I thought I wasn’t. She liked taking photographs and she even liked me.
After she left, he filled her space with all the other popular girls and I pretended not to watch. I joined the theatre group and discovered an aptitude for acting. In the final year of school we scored the leads. He played a man that travelled back in time and fell in love with me. We had to kiss on stage as the curtain went down. I thought he kept kissing me in the dark but I wasn’t sure.
One night just before we all scattered for university, I told him to follow me to the bathroom and when he did I stood in front of him, very still and raw. He pushed me up against the wall and kissed me, hands over my body like there were drugs beneath my skin.
He left for America a few days later and we never talked about it, but he always called me when he was back in town and we would stay up drinking red wine in my kitchen, talking about our art—his music, my writing—and the exhilaration of living a bohemian life, but also the ugly side of it. We never talked about lovers but I knew he was mad for an exciting, multilingual woman that had green eyes and was thinner than me. He always stole my cigarettes.
The last time I ran into him it was five am, New Year’s Day. He was crashing a friend’s hotel room and I crashed into them. Everyone else had gone home to pass out and I was tired too, but breakfast at the Hilton sounded like more fun. We charged everything to the room and I was too drunk to care about being rude. I let the waiter know that there was a hair in my pancake—there was— and they gave us a bottle of champagne. I felt very smug.
I fell asleep on the couch in their suite and woke up around noon, cold. He was sleeping in bed with his friend. I whispered out to him, and before I finished the last letter of his name he had pulled back the blanket. He clasped an arm around me, our bodies like brackets, and put his face in my hair. I woke up first and crept out.
A few years later he was living in Berlin and I mentioned my thoughts on visiting and he wrote back with his address. So I went.
Berlin is a grey city. Even the fields looked mildly grey. There seemed to be a lot of smokers, Italians and people in wheelchairs. My smiles seemed ostentatious.
He picked me up from Gneisenaustrasse and told me that this area used to be trendy but now it was cool. We sat by the canal drinking beer and eating blueberries. We talked about the things we always talked about, and also the ways that we’d changed. I pointed to his hair.
“You’re going grey, old man.”
He reached over and tucked a strand behind my ear. “So are you.”
I didn’t see him much. He was still heartbroken over the green-eyed woman and I was too old to be jealous. But when I did see him, and we were alone, his hands were like magnets for me, running through my hair like water, pressing the bone at the back of my neck like a button. It was simultaneously surprising and natural.
One afternoon at his house, I was watching him play the guitar, well, watching his hands, the grace in their speed, thinking dirty things. He wasn’t paying any attention to me and that was okay. I sat by the window looking at the Playmobil houses, trying not to be racist and imagine Nazis everywhere. When I dangled my legs over the edge he snapped at me and I laughed. I was lying on my bed texting my friend (there is a wonderful lack of disappointment in the absence of expectations) when I felt him (he’s stroking my ankle).
When I didn’t stop him, he crawled up next to me and traced the crescent of my jawline and pulled me towards him.
I threw an arm over my eyes and lay very still. There was too much sunlight coming in, thick and white, and I was still afraid of being seen. I rolled over, sat on the windowsill again, and told him about an excellent éclair I’d eaten for breakfast. He stood in the middle of the room, arms crossed awkwardly across his chest, a smirk on his stupid film noir face. When the evening filled the room in a silver-lilac light I stopped talking and looked at him and waited for him to look at me because I knew he would.
The kiss was different this time. Time changes tongues. It was awkward, we were awkward, but we couldn’t stop touching each other after that. Never spoke about it, just constant handsy exploration. He would do something to piss me off, say things like “Why should I learn German? Everyone here speaks English,” and I’d look at him like a pumpkin. But then he’d touch me and my heart would start thrashing like there was a moshpit in my chest and my throat would tighten so I’d have to take oceanic breaths and really focus on taking in oxygen, wondering if he could feel it all when his hand ran over my breastbone. I had been with all these boys that didn’t know how to touch me, whose touches were rapid and inelegant and my skin was so fucking thirsty.
“We touch the same,” he said and I closed my eyes and took it, let myself be the taker.
On my last night, we sat at a little Italian bar where he wanted to play music and he talked to the owner and he was so awkward about it that I felt superior. The owner asked me where I was from and when I told him he told me, in my own language, that I have nice hair.
When I sat down with our vodkas on the rocks with a squeeze of lime, I told him what the man had said and he shrugged. He didn’t disagree, but he didn’t agree either. He talked about his music for a long time and when we were both silent, I said, “You’re very self-absorbed.”
Later, walking, he put one arm around me and kissed my head. He did that a lot. We walked home even though my feet hurt. It took an hour and we spent it talking about him. I bought us a bottle of wine before we went up, an organic merlot for five eighty-five euro. There was a corkscrew hanging from a ribbon next to similar paraphernalia swinging like tentacles but he was sure he had one upstairs and I believed him. But he didn’t, of course, and we ended up jamming a nail into the cork, trying to pull it all out with a pair of pliers. We were half-successful and pushed the rest of the cork in, like we were useless or third-class or teenagers. All night I was picking cork crumbs out of my mouth.
We sat on the couch and he looked at me, properly looked at me and asked me lots of questions about everything; about their imminent divorce and my abortion and that time I accidentally caught fire. And that made me want him more.
We fucked like teenagers, bodies starving for each other, kisses made easy with desire. As soon as he finished, he stumbled over to the window and flung it open and then came back and more, more kisses on the head. He said, “Our bodies don’t know each other yet,” and I agreed, and that’s how we fell asleep.
When I got back, my friend was sweetly excited and I told her what had happened but I was very nonchalant about it and she kept trying to get me to confess to something. So I did. I said, “I’ve been in love with him for eleven years,” and she rolled her eyes because she’d known that for a long time. She wanted me to tell him because she thinks she knows, always thought she knew, there could never be anyone for me except him, and I can’t get her to understand that there is such a wonderful lack of disappointment in the absence of expectations.